Communities

In an ideal world, that is a world as I like to imagine it, colleges and universities would be communities of learning, places where folks with different points of view, ages, and preferences meet to discuss with open minds the issues that have confounded humanity for generations. The emphasis here is on “communities,” since the idea is that there is a common purpose, a common goal: all are together to learn from one another and from other minds outside the community that are invited in to share what they know and join in the conversation.

In the real world, the world we all know and love, it is not quite like this. Increasingly, colleges and universities have become warring camps where faculty and students align themselves with one another on political or ideological grounds and dare others to intrude. Increasingly commonplace are such things as the denial of invitations to certain people to come to campus to join in the conversation; such invitations are met with howls of protest as they are regarded as the anathema of what education is now all about. Faculty members select reading material that conforms to their own particular “take” on the issues of the day, insisting that others have done so for generations and it is now their turn. Whether or not this is true, and I seriously question it, there is no place for this sort of selective indoctrination, the hammering into young and impressionable heads the last word on controversial topics that allow for a variety of opinions, indeed, demand a variety of opinions in order to help the young people to learn to think. Cultural diversity, with the stress on the superiority of other cultures (any other cultures) to our own, has taken the place of intellectual diversity, the open expression of a variety of points of view on complex issues. Shouting has replaced civil discourse, and open minds have been closed.

Years ago, when I taught at the University of Rhode Island there was increasing interest among faculty members in the new unions that were forming around the country. At URI we had the American Association of University Professors, the mildest form of union, but one dedicated to guaranteeing freedom of speech, intellectual freedom, and, of course, decent wages for the hard work that many are unaware goes into teaching the young. At the time I worried that this new wave of unionization might well lead to a confrontational relationship between faculty and administration, that it would destroy the collegiality that I though central to the purpose of a community of learning. How naive! But, in a sense, I was right. Unions, for all the good they do, tend to grow like an experiment gone wrong and to become all-powerful and all-important. Instead of working to protect the ideals of communities of learning they lend themselves to the growing conviction that education is all about business and learning must take a back seat.

All of this, I suppose, is the complaint of an old, fossilized college teacher who complains that things were never as they should have been but are even worse today then they were once upon a time. There is some truth in this, of course, as old folks tend to look back with rose-colored glasses. But, at the same time, it is undeniably true that the gap has grown wider and wider between the ideal of education as a place where the young come to gain true freedom, the possession of their own minds, and the reality of college as a business. I have seen it happening and while I have done what I could to close that gap I do realize that it is too little too late. Things were never ideal, and there have always been reasons to complain — legitimately so. But of late, the larger culture has come together with the academy to create a world within a world in which business is the order of the day and intolerance has replaced tolerance while the young struggle to understand why they are there in the first place — and how on earth they are going to pay for the privilege after graduation.

There are success stories, of course, excellent students who want to learn and grow led by dedicated teachers who realize that the student’s intellectual growth is of paramount importance, and it is not fostered by indoctrination posing as education . And these exceptions are the foundation on which to build our hopes as they are in the world at large where good people struggle to do good while all around them folks worry only about how to do well, how to “succeed” in  world in which success is measured in dollars and cents.

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The Dead Horse

I have been kicking this poor, dead horse for more than fifteen years, starting with my book Recalling Education in 2001. But the following protest by English majors at Yale University — of all places — makes me want to take one more kick. I must say, I know how Bernie Sanders feels (and Cassandra). He knows what is wrong with this country and has a pretty good idea how to fix things. But while there are those who follow his lead (and I do wish I had that many followers!) the people who have the power to actually support his efforts, to take him seriously, simply turn away and ignore him altogether. He is spitting against the wind. I know that feeling: kicking a dead horse while spitting into the wind!

In any event, the following snippet on the ‘net drew my attention:

Some Yale University students are demanding changes to the English Department curriculum: specifically, they don’t think it should feature so many English poets who were straight, white, wealthy, and male.

“It is your responsibility as educators to listen to student voices,” the students wrote in a petition to the faculty. “We have spoken. We are speaking. Pay attention.”

We can all sincerely hope that this will not happen. But what is interesting here is that these students want to determine the curriculum while they obviously have no idea whatever what education is all about. It is certainly not about what the students want; it’s about what they need. Moreover, it is not about information, “Correct” or “Incorrect,” though information is a necessary condition of education — one cannot do without it and, as we are seeing, the uneducated among us are terribly misinformed and don’t know a fact from a lie. But while information is necessary it is not sufficient. One must be able to assimilate and process information, separate fact from fiction, truth from falsity, recognize hyperbole and humor. And that’s where these students — and many faculty in my experience — go wrong. They confuse cultural diversity with intellectual diversity. The latter, like information, is necessary for an education; the former is not.

Surely, it is a good thing to know about diverse cultures and there is no reason whatever that these students should not be introduced to cultures other than their own. But above all else they must be introduced to intellectual diversity, the difference of opinion, preferably among men and women of extraordinary stature, the great minds among us. This kind of diversity is found in the so-called “classics” of Western tradition, which these students choose to ignore. There are no two minds in that tradition that agree with one another about much of anything. For example, Aristotle was Plato’s student and he disagreed with his teacher about every important item in the panoply of human thought — except that thought itself is essential for the human being to achieve his or her full potential.

Our students, especially at prestigious universities like Yale where the leaders of tomorrow will study, need to know about intellectual diversity. They need to learn how to use their minds, to become free and independent thinkers who are not bound by cultural boundaries and who recognize tomfoolery and bloat when they see and hear it. They need to read and discuss the greatest minds that have ever lived. This will not happen if their teachers listen to their pleas (threats?) and throw out such thinkers as the great English poets and writers who have helped form the warp and woof of the civilization we are all struggling to maintain.

Diversity is important. Information is important. But cultural diversity and mere information are not sufficient to guarantee that young minds will take possession of themselves. They are necessary, but they are not sufficient.

As the article goes on to point out,

There’s nothing wrong with providing a greater variety of courses for students, and if students want to read more female and minority authors, the English Department is welcome to oblige. But there’s only so much that can be done. There just aren’t that many early modern writers who were gay or transgender.

Students should feel comfortable challenging the notion that a Shakespeare or a Milton deserves his place in the canon: in fact, that sounds like an excellent subject for a classroom discussion facilitated by a professor. But professors need to actually teach students about these pivotal figures before those discussions can be had.

In a word, we need to know whereof we speak before we turn our backs on great minds. Those minds are the very ones that can free our own.

Diversity

One of the buzzwords on college campuses these days — and for many days past — is the word “diversity.” The word requires the modifier “cultural” but this is seldom used. The modifier is required because what has become of central importance to a great many faculty members in our institutions of higher learning is the notion that their students need to know more about cultures other than their own. This is not a bad thing, but like other movements within the academy (e.g., the political correctness movement) things have gotten a bit out of hand.

In the name of cultural diversity, the evidence suggests that many faculty members have begun to confuse enlightenment with indoctrination. In the interest of revealing to the captive minds that sit before them spellbound they find themselves presenting one or two narrow perspectives which they themselves find comfortable and ignoring or demeaning many others, including the students’ own. There are even cases of instructors belittling students who defend contrary positions and being graded down if they disagree with the instructor and his or her take on the ills of American culture and the beauty of, say, Native American culture. A growing body of evidence suggests that this is more widespread than we would like to believe.

I have no problem with the notion that students need to have their narrow perspectives broadened, that we all need to know more about cultures different from our own. That is a good thing. But the notion that other cultures are ipso facto superior to our own is a claim that requires support. For one thing, it is difficult to generalize in these cases — just what is a culture? Do women comprise a separate and distinct culture — as many would have it — and is it, or any culture for that matter, superior in all respects to the major culture within which the majority of Americans are brought up? Heaven knows there are a great many shortcomings to our materialistic culture, but then there are many shortcomings to other cultures that are sometimes held in higher estimation than they deserve.

But more important than cultural diversity, from my perspective, is the question of intellectual diversity, the clash of different points of view. This clash is what generates questions and is more likely to lead to genuine thought on the part of the students than is a narrow, and even biased, presentation of other cultural perspectives. If one is taught to think then he or she will naturally begin to think about important questions and even want to explore other cultural perspectives. We seem to have put the cart before the horse. And like other movements that begin within the academy (e.g., again, the P.C. movement) the concern over cultural diversity has worked its way down through the grades and into the culture at large. The widespread reaction within this culture to the bigotry exhibited by Donald Trump stems from a growing awareness that other cultures are no less important than our own, that Trump’s take on the Mexicans or the religion of Islam, for example, is abhorrent to anyone with a grain of sense.  This is a good thing. More to the point, however, the tendency to insist that our own convictions on complex issues are the only ones that need to be known has become commonplace. Instead of inviting diverse points of view and the free exchange of ideas, many of us seek out reinforcement of our own ideas and read and watch sources that sink us deeper and deeper within our own world, ignorant of other ways of living and thinking.

It does seem to me that the job of instructors in our schools is to help young people gain possession of their own minds, to become independent thinkers who are also aware of other points of view. The presentation of diverse cultural perspectives, as I say, is not a bad thing. But it should take a back seat to the need of students to have their convictions challenged and their minds opened to new ideas. Cultural diversity is important, but it is not nearly as important as intellectual diversity. That’s what education should be about.